Level of unlawful council activity 'unprecedented': Ngaio Crequer reports on the claims that there has been a decade of malpractice in Lambeth

IT WAS always an irritating issue to the residents of Lambeth that they paid the highest poll tax bills. Especially so when neighbouring Wandsworth charged nothing at all.

The news that for more than a decade unlawful practices have been followed by Lambeth council in south London, amounting to several millions of pounds of money being misdirected, will not cheer residents of either borough.

The report by Herman Ouseley, the chief executive - and it must be said that since his appointment in 1991 a searching light has been cast over council practices - makes grim reading.

The purpose of his report is to make recommendations concerning unlawful activity in relation to civil engineering works, unlawful and potentially unlawful activity 'on an unprecedented scale' in other parts of the council, and activity which constitutes maladministration and/or injustice.

His report calls for the police to be invited to investigate issues surrounding work in progress in housing maintenance, particularly the role of sub-contractors.

Mr Ouseley wants 14 contracts for housing repairs and maintenance to be re-tendered. He proposes that 'all necessary' disciplinary action be taken regarding the council's integrated building services and the police be invited to take a look. Refuse collection and street cleaning could be subject to re-tenders.

He has had problemswith the report. Finance, health and environmental officers have given him assistance in carrying out his statutory duty of seeing money is properly spent. But the report says: 'It is a matter of grave concern that these officers and their families have all been subjected to a range of intimidatory activity from sources as yet unknown where it seems likely to be related to their work in this area.'

Incidents, unspecified in the report, have been reported to the police, 'and will no doubt need to be considered again in any wider police investigation'.

There is also the question of personal liability of officials who may have been involved in disobeying the law. A number of officers in the directorate of operational services, or civil engineering and public services, will have to face, says his report, either disciplinary action; legal action for the recovery of monies; reports to the district auditor for wilful misconduct; or police investigation.

Examples of malpractice abound: incomplete jobs charged for on a 'done status'; overcharging for jobs; no working papers to show how estimates were prepared for refuse collection - the last time a proper budget was prepared was six years ago.

Regarding street lighting, works had been invoiced as complete even though there was evidence that signs and bollards had been out of order. For housing repairs, where much work was sub-contracted, there were missing documents and invoices, making auditing difficult if not impossible.

With regard to the integrated building services, officers had flouted or in many cases ignored council standing orders over contracts. Allegations of 'corrupt practices' had been made which were being internally investigated. It had created 'a regime where the opportunities for corruption are legion'.

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